Canada finally gets mental health strategy

After five years of research and planning, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has finally released our country’s first national mental health strategy.

Until now, we were the only G8 country not to have a national strategy on mental health and the 152-page document titled “Changing Direction, Changing Lives” released this week is calling for some major changes in the way we manage mental health care in Canada.

Within the report there are many recommendations intended to overhaul a system already recognized as over-burdened, under-funded and not very well coordinated.

Although the document doesn’t talk very specifically about money, it does recommend federal and provincial governments up their mental health spending from roughly seven percent of health budgets to nine percent – which would mean an increase of $4 billion in annual spending.

Along with increased funding from government, the national strategy wants to bring mental health problems out of the shadows by continuing to break down barriers to treatment and battle stigma.

Six main strategic directions are highlighted within the report with specific recommendations made in each: promoting mental health and prevention of mental illness; fostering recovery and upholding rights; providing access to the right services, treatments and supports; reducing disparity and addressing diversity; working with first nations, Inuit and Metis communities where addiction and suicide are major problems; and mobilizing leadership and fostering collaboration.

These recommendations shouldn’t only affect the delivery of health services, but call for changes within our social services, justice system, educational institutions, employers and society at large.

Specific recommendations include a call to employers to put psychological health and safety standards in place to protect workers. The report also recommends a continued effort to divert seriously mentally ill people away from the justice system and supports the housing first philosophy for getting mentally ill homeless people off the street.

Since the MHCC is not a funding agency, its report needs the support and buy-in of federal and provincial governments as well as other stakeholders such as major employers, educators and healthcare professionals.

Although mental health is dubbed the ‘orphan’ of healthcare, it certainly doesn’t carry a small burden to our society. Twenty percent of us will experience mental illness at some point in our lives and mental health problems cost our economy more than $50 billion per year. It is time we put some concentrated and coordinated efforts into improving the way we handle these issues.

It was encouraging to note that the federal health minister was part of the strategy’s official launch on May 8 – time will tell whether the government takes a leadership role to help move Canada’s mental health strategy from recommendation to action.


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